Document Type


Publication Date



In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons (125 S. Ct. 1183) banned executions of persons who commit capital murder before they reach age 18. Roper overturned death sentences for 72 people in 18 states (Streib, 2005). Most (but not all) were resentenced to natural life or life in prison without the possibility of parole (or JLWOP). Juvenile justice advocates now want to extend Roper’s maturity heuristic, proportionality analysis, aversion to errors, and deference to international laws and norms to argue for a constitutional ban on natural life sentences for adolescent offenders. This move could have a far greater reach than did Roper, potentially affecting more than 2,250 inmates in 42 states. But extending Roper raises difficult normative, constitutional and policy questions. Does the Roper logic fit when the crime is other than murder? When the sentence is less than death? A retreat from natural life sentences requires a confrontation in state legislatures with three decades of increasingly harsh punishment legislation aimed at juvenile offenders, and with its underlying fear-driven instinct to remove serious youthful offenders categorically and permanently from our midst. The policy options and mobilization strategies to counter this trend emerge not only from Roper’s jurisprudence but also from the coupling and alignment of natural life sentences with a broader discourse on the principles of juvenile justice and youth policies.


Criminal Law | Criminology | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Law